Posts Tagged ‘Locals’

2012 has been a fun-filled year for Kelly and me, even more so because of all the visitors we’ve had to Austin in recent months.  I absolutely love when we are able to re-connect with people from our trip – it just reinforces that the short, yet intense bond you shared at one point doesn’t change over time or despite the distance between you.

Kelly and I met Marianne in Argentina towards the beginning of our travels and were able to meet up with her again in Australia.  After graduating from medical school in Norway, she had some vacation time and decided to come to Texas.   We had a blast taking her around the town, drinking, dancing, and stuffing her face with Tex Mex.   Her timing couldn’t have been better since she was here for Kelly’s 30th birthday ‘Party Like It’s 1982 – Electric Boogaloo’ shindig.



Us and Marianne!

Us and Marianne!

We were also proud to talk Marianne into doing her first ever keg stand and she reminded us that she is still the caipiroska making queen – just as she was several years ago at the Blue Parrott in Sydney.

Luke the Aussie visited us not long before Marianne.  He stopped in Austin for a couple of weeks on his way down to travel extensively in Mexico and Central America.  I had visited Luke 8 months before in Melbourne, so I was thrilled to get to spend more time with him.  Besides the usual Austin haunts, we were also able to check out a couple of Austin staples that I had not yet experienced for myself – Hamilton Pool (absolutely stunning) and Chicken Shit Bingo.  In case you were wondering, it’s exactly what it sounds like.  You pick a number and if the chicken shits on your number, you win the prize.  That’s right, ya’ll.

Luke and me at Hamilton Pool

Luke and me at Hamilton Pool

Since I had Luke for a couple of weeks, we took a 4-day detour to New Orleans for Jazz Fest with my usual crew and our lovely local hosts Carol and Lionel.  We visited our favorite bars, restaurants, got pretty inebriated everyday and danced our asses off at the festival.  New Orleans is always a good time and I loved getting to experience it with Luke.  I was sad to see him go.

Pigging out at Jazzfest

Pigging out at Jazzfest

Kelly, Seth and I met Ed from London in Turkey on the bus from Istanbul to Cappadocia and hung out for a day or two while we were there.  Ed works for BP and just happened to be in Houston for a week for work and decided to make a weekend trip up to Austin.  Kelly took him out on the town one night and I spent his last afternoon with him driving him around the city, checked out Mount Bonnell, and had a drink on the lake at the Oasis.  Turns out Ed is still up to all kinds of travel adventures.   Check it out here: www.dromomaniacs.com

Having a drink at the Oasis

Having a drink at the Oasis

Kelly and I also hosted some new travelling friends – Stella from Australia and Courtlen from Canada.  Stella is a friend of Kelly’s roommate and had spent some time working in Canada.  She came to spend Austin in Halloween and we almost lost her to a band of gypsies and guy on a donkey.

Golden Girls, Ellen and Portia, and Boy George (aka Stella)

Golden Girls, Ellen and Portia, and Boy George (aka Stella)

Courtlen is a friend of Luke the Aussie’s – they met while working at a hostel together in Nicaragua – and I put him up for the weekend during Fun Fun Fun Fest.  Courtlen is probably the most hardcore traveler I’ve ever met.  He’s hitchhiked across Mexico and Central America (hell, he even hitchhiked to Austin in a farmer’s PLANE) and spent 6 months living in a favela in Rio de Janeiro.

kickin it at FFF

kickin it at FFF

And lastly, Thiago, a Brazilian work colleague of mine that I met while travelling for work, decided to base himself out of Austin for a month.  I’m making sure he is getting his fair share of chips and queso and trying to see that he packs on the same ten pounds I did while I was in his country.  Payback’s a bitch buddy.

Thiago and the ladies at Tacky Xmas Sweater Party.

Thiago and the ladies at Tacky Xmas Sweater Party.

Happy New Year everyone – hope to see your face in Austin soon!

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One bittersweet aspect of travel is making awesome new friends and then having to part ways with them days or weeks later, knowing you’ll probably never see them again.   Most backpackers accept this as part of the long-term travel lifestyle, but I say its bullshit.  Sure, the norm is that you won’t ever see the majority of these people for the rest of your life…but some you might; you just have to make it happen!

Kelly and I met some amazing people during our travels who we still keep in touch with – Doug, Marianne, the Jeffs, Meghan, Tessa, Phil, and Luke being some of our faves and we all promised to visit each other in our respective countries.   So several months ago when Luke and I tossed around the idea of me coming to visit him in Australia, instead of thinking ‘yeah right, that’s crazy’, I thought why the hell not?!  I had received a large tax refund that I wasn’t expecting and instead of buying a computer and a new cell phone or some other ‘practical’ item, maybe I should take a kick-ass vacation.   Maybe after my break-up with M, I needed to do something a little irrational.   So I said fuck it and bought a plane ticket to Melbourne.  I’m tired of just talking about things I’d like to do and want to actually DO them.

Luke and his other 5 roommates were kind enough to let me crash with them for the duration of my stay, which gave me the opportunity to be immersed in Aussie ‘culture’.  Basically, they are all crazy (in a fun, obnoxious way).  My first couple of days in OZ I spent recovering from jet-lag.  I slept in, took a train into downtown, checked out Federation Square, the ACMI museum, walked along the river AND got to reconnect with Tessa, whom Kelly and I met in Spain.  We met in Fed Square and had a hard time recognizing one another since we had on make-up, had done our hair, and had on normal clothes…we were only used to what we looked like as grubby backpackers!   It was so great to reconnect with her.  She gave me a walking tour of downtown Melbourne, took me to the Queen Victoria market to buy souvenirs, and showed me the ‘footy’ stadium where all of the AFL (Australian Football League…much different than American football) games take place.  Victoria peeps are nuts about their teams!!

Along the river

Tessa and me!

Me in front of the footy stadium

That weekend, I went to the Park Life music festival downtown with Luke and crew.  We all dressed as cyclists, which seems somewhat ridiculous, but ended up being an awesome idea…very easy to find one another in our neon jackets.   Saw some bands, drank too much, and acted like fools…overall, a super fun day!

On Monday, Luke and I departed for Alice Springs to begin our tour of Ayres Rock (Uluru), the iconic sandstone rock formation in the middle of the Northern Territory.   I was very excited about this, since Kelly and I were only able to see the east coast when we were in OZ the previous year and I was pretty bummed I didn’t get to see Uluru.  To be honest, Alice Springs is in the middle of NOWHERE and is sort of a hole.  We strolled around town, met a 69 year old Dutch woman traveling the world by train in 80 days (so inspiring!), took a nap, ate dinner, and had an early night.   I think we were both still recovering from the debauchery of the weekend.

After a 5 hour drive the next morning, we made it to our campsite near Ayres Rock.  The plan was to hike the ‘Valley of the Winds’ trail, but due to the high heat, the trail was closed.  Instead we did a couple of short hikes around the Olgas (another group of rock formations) and headed over to Uluru for sunset.  As all of my faithful readers know, weather never seems to cooperate with my travel/site seeing plans.  It was very cloudy that evening so the dramatic color changes of the rock that I had hoped to witness didn’t happen.   Still very pretty though.

Walking through the Olgas

Luke and me in front of Uluru at sunset

The next morning was one of my favorite days of the trip.  We woke up early as hell in the morning to make it to Uluru and walk around the base of the rock during sunrise.  Luke and I were able to separate ourselves from the rest of the tour group, which was nice.  The weather was perfect, the sunrise beautiful and the rock itself was incredible.  It’s fricken massive and the colors are amazing…almost like it’s GLOWING.  Honestly, it’s mind-boggling that this giant rock is sitting in the middle of completely flat terrain for hundreds of miles.   Luke and I discussed climbing the rock, but decided against it, as it’s sacred to the Anangu, the Aboriginal people in the area.  They prefer you don’t trample all over their special mountain.  OK, fine.  The climbing trail ended up being closed due to the wind anyway, but honestly I wouldn’t have wanted to climb it either way…the ‘trail’ is basically a chain that you cling to up a steep ass mountain…it looked terrifying.  People die doing this every year…no thanks.


On our walk. Shadows are fun!


That afternoon our tour group was supposed to drive another 4 hours to hike King’s Canyon the next day (supposed to be amazing).  Go figure, some arsonists had set a bunch of bush fires, which resulted in the road to the canyon being closed for the next 4 days.  We were slightly bummed, but again, you can’t get too upset about things you can’t control.  Our guide took us to watch the sunset with a view of the Olgas…Luke and I splurged and got tipsy on a bottle of wine and had no trouble keeping each other entertained for the rest of the evening.  We slept outside under thousands of stars, which were absolutely beautiful…totally worth freezing our asses off the entire night.

Waiting for sunset at the Olgas

We made our way back to Alice Springs the next day, saw some local park areas, and then met up with several people in our tour group for dinner.  Afterwards, we had many drinks at the bar next door, danced a little and basically made fun of all the crazy ass locals that were there…a lovely end to our time in the not-so-lovely town of Alice Springs.

My last full day in Melbourne was spent at Luke’s house with his roommates and friends watching the AFL Championship (basically, the Aussie version of the Super Bowl).  Luckily, the team they were pulling for won.   Lots more drinking ensued (I was able to introduce them to my favorite drinking game – FLIP CUP) and then we hit up the town for more shenanigans.   Felt pretty rough the next day, so we laid around, watched movies, and I packed up all my crap to be ready for my 3.30 a.m. taxi pick-up to take me to the airport.

It was a pretty quick trip, but I’m so happy I went.  Not only did I get to see some cool shit, but got to reconnect with old travel buddies and make more new friends.  I have to admit I was a little nervous to go and spend 10 days with someone that I had only hung out with for a couple of weeks over a year and a half ago.  I mean, what if he totally sucked in ‘real life’?  Obviously that wasn’t the case and Luke and I got along just as well as we did the day Kelly and  I met him in Turkey.  I hope we get to see each other again… I know we will, it’s just a matter of making it happen.

Marianne, Doug, Meghan, the Jeff’s…you’re next!!

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You may think that taking a year off to travel the world and leaving a huge gap in your resume would lessen your chance of getting hired by a kick-ass employer…and you would be dead wrong.   Ironically enough, my travels were the KEY to me landing my current gig – working for a company that sponsors visas for international university students.  The students come to the US to participate in cultural exchange work/internship programs and we help recruit them and find them jobs.  Sort of like what I did for my work abroad program in New Zealand over 10 years ago…damn, has it been that long?

Anyway, I LOVE this job.  Not only does it allow me to promote something I feel passionately about (cultural exchange, long term travel, etc.), but I get to travel too, both here in the states AND internationally.  I’m not making near as much money as I made as a property manager, but the trade off is that I actually like going to work every day.  At this point in my life, I’m willing to make less money to do a job that I enjoy and although I’ve had to adjust my lifestyle quite a bit, it’s soooooo worth it.

Surprisingly, after a few months at the new job, they decided to send me to Thailand for 5 days!  I basically accompanied one of our clients to an overseas job fair (hosted by one of our local partner agencies) where they interviewed and hired Thai students to come work for them.  I was super pumped to go back to Thailand, simply to eat the food.  Pad Thai, green curry, nutella pancakes, and fresh fruit shakes available at every corner?  Hell yeah!

Not surprisingly, this trip was very different from when Kelly and I were in Bangkok.  Instead of a shady guesthouse in the middle of the backpacker craziness that is Koh-San Road, I was put up in a posh hotel in a modern shopping area of the city.  Our Thai partner agencies wined and dined my client Stephanie and me in fancy restaurants and bars, although one of them did take us to Koh San for some yummy street food and drinks, just so she could see the madness of that particular part of town.  It was really weird being back there less than a year later – it was as chaotic as I remembered it.  The pad thai, green curry, nutella pancakes and fruit shakes were as delicious too.

Me, Stephanie, Pookie (one of our Thai partners...I wish my name was Pookie!) in a tuktuk on Koh San


We had a ‘cultural day’ amidst our job fairs where Stephanie and I were taken to see the Grand Palace…I had been there previously with Kelly, but it was no less impressive than when I saw it the first time.  We also did a long-boat ride on the river, which I had NOT done before, wandered around in a couple of swanky malls, did some shopping, and got a 2 hour Thai massage.  Thai massages are super intense and somewhat painful (you are pretty much getting your ass kicked by a tiny Thai woman), but you feel fantastic (albeit a little disoriented) afterwards.  Definitely get one if you have the chance.

Back at the Grand Palace


Me and 'O', who works with another Thai partner, on the boat!

On the boat ride

It was a short and exhausting trip…but I loved every minute of it.  I was also reminded that much like people, cities deserve a second chance too.  Kelly and I didn’t really care for Bangkok the first time around, but after experiencing a different side of the city and getting shown around by a few locals, I started to appreciate what Bangkok has to offer.  Oh and next time, I’m totally hitting up a ping-pong show.

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A Few Days in Istanbul

Kim and I absolutely loved Nepal.  However, we were both looking forward to heading into the westernized world once again. After a full 24 hours of travel and a bump up to first class on one of our flights (yeah!), we landed in Istanbul, Turkey.  We checked in to our hostel in Sultanahmet, the heart of historic Istanbul.  We had a few days to kill before Seth, one of my oldest friends, would join us for 2 weeks of fun!  We knew he would want to see a lot of the tourist attractions as well, so we spent our first couple of days running errands (shipping things home, haircuts, etc.), relaxing on our hostel´s rooftop terrace admiring the coast, and enjoying ice cold Efes, Turkey´s best beer.

We also made a lot of new Australian and Kiwi friends since they were all in town for Anzac Day.  This is a national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand on April 25th every year to honor members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) who fought at Gallipoli in Turkey during WWI.  I think we were the only people at the hostel that were not from OZ or New Zealand!  When all them left for Gallipoli, we made friends with some locals that we spent an evening with drinking red wine, dancing and smoking sheesha (flavored tabacco) in their restaruant after hours.  What a great night!

 When Seth arrived a few days later, we only had a couple days to see the sites in Istanbul before we moved on.  We went ahead and booked all of our activities for his entire time in Turkey so we could relax and not have to do too much planning. First stop was The Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Mosque).  It was built by Sultan Ahmet in 17th century and was supposed to be bigger, better and more beautiful than Hagai Sofia (Ayasofya), the ´greatest church in Christendom´, across the plaza built in 537 A.D. This is actually a working mosque so it is closed to visitors for 30 minutes, 5 times a day for Muslim prayer.  It get´s its name from the blue tiles that are inside, mostly on the upper level.  Even though the exterior was in my opinion, much prettier than Ayasofya, the interior of Ayasofya was breathtaking and more beautiful.  Both buildings are must sees, just be ready for the crowds.  Afterwards, we headed over to the harbor for a fresh fish sandwich and mussels and a long walk along the coast. That night, we hung out with all the Aussies and Kiwis that had returned from Gallipoli.  The strip of bars and clubs behind our hostel were filled with people enjoying themselves after such an emotional experience.   
The Blue Mosque


Dome inside the mosque


Seth and Me


The Aya Sofia

Inside the Aya Sofia



For Seth´s final day in Istanbul, we headed to the Grand Bazaar for some shopping.  What an amazing place!! They have everything Turkish you could ever imagine.  From tea and backgammon sets, to belly dancing costumes, jewelry, clothes, pashminas, sheesha pipes, to sultan hats.  We had so much fun wandering around for hours in the maze of shops with men shouting funny lines to get you to stop and look.  You could literally spend days in there and not see everything.  We also visited the underground Basilica Cistern.  It was built in the 6th century and later enlarged to provide water filtration for the surrounding buildings in Sultanahmet. 


The Cistern

That night, Seth and I went with some friends from the hostel to Taksim, a area where locals and tourists go out for a good time.  There are tons of bars, clubs, live music, and dancing for any taste.  Unfortunately it was Monday, so the scene was pretty low-key.  Even though we were told it was best to go on weekends, we had to check it out.  We still made a great night out of it!! If any of you know Seth….he IS the party where ever we go.

Istanbul is an incredible city. So alive and friendly! Luckily, Kim and I would be back in about a month but now on to Cappadocia!!


Our new Turkish friends

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As Kim mentioned before, I had a rough time the first few days of the trek.  However, once I had my ‘Nepali magic shoes’ and my phenomenal 75 song, jammin’ playlist I created on my ipod, things got much better physically and reaching the base camp was one of the best feelings mentally I have ever felt.  Its indescribable.  I am so glad I decided to push through and keep going.  As Powan said, ‘its like a little slice of heaven’ and he wasn’t lying.

Nepali Magic Shoes

Day 8-Bamboo to Jhinu

After our night in Bamboo, we headed out early for another up and downhill trek to Jhinu where the natural hot springs are located.  We were really looking forward to relaxing and giving our sore muscles a little treat.  The walk that day was a little rough, especially with the millions of gigantic steps leading up to Chhomrong.  But with the base camp behind us and the natural high we had from reaching it, the days seemed to get easier and easier. 

Guesthouse in Chomrong

When we made it to Jhinu, we had a deliciously ice cold Fanta ( a rare treat when you are up in the mountains- literally, they chill the drinks by sticking them in a bucket of water outside) and decided that instead of hiking to Ghandruk, another small village 7 hours away, we would take a rest day the following day.  Normally this is the day most people rest, but the option of continuing to Ghandruk is available for those who don’t want to stop.  Kim asked Powan if we would be missing anything by skipping Ghandruk, and he assured us that we wouldn’t, it was ‘just another village’.  Plus, we think he really wanted a rest day as well:) 

Since we knew we didn’t have a tough day ahead, Kim and I relaxed with some cold beers and a few games of Dumbal with Powan and Sabin.  There was also a large group of student volunteers partying it up to celebrate their last day on the trek, so I had a few glasses of whiskey with them and called it a night.

Day 9- Rest day in Jhinu

We woke up bright and early to take advantage of the cooler weather for our short hike down to the hot springs.  We spent the next hour and a half relaxing in the small pools right next to the river surrounded by gorgeous mountains, chatting with the local Tibetan women enjoying a dip before a days work.  It was so nice to just sit and relax and take in everything we had accomplished in the past week.   We headed back to the guesthouse for one of the best breakfasts we’d had the whole trek- homemade french toast and apple pie!  We spent the day reading, napping and playing cards with the guys. 

Relaxin' at the hot springs

Day 10- Jhinu to Landruk

The next morning, we awoke feeling nice and rested and ready for our short 3 hour, mostly downhill hike over to Landruk, one of the larger villages on the trek.  One thing we noticed along the way, is that everyone still does everything manually up in the mountains.  Tilling, planting, watering and harvesting crops, laundry, etc.  The villagers even cut bricks by hand! It’s like you’ve stepped back in time a couple hundred years.  It was crazy.

When we reached the village, I did some yoga in the yard to give my muscles a good stretch while Kim took a little nap.  Again, we had a nice long afternoon to read, play cards and have a few beers with the guides, porters and newcomers to the trail. 

Day 11- Landruk to Dhampus

This was our last long day of the trek.  It was about a 6.5 hour hike with surprisingly a few flat areas.  We hadn’t seen flat ground the entire trek up to this point.  Kim and I took our time and really soaked in the scenery and sense of accomplishment we felt.  It was crazy to stop, turn around and look back at Annapurna South to see how far we’d come.  Again, one of the best highs ever.   As we approached Dhampus, the largest village on the trek, we started to see cars, a local school, and more signs that we were getting back to current civilization.  We hung out that afternoon out on the lawn with beers and our books, while a few others played soccer with the kids from the guesthouse. 

Guides playing games with the local kiddos

We had also heard that the guides wanted chicken for dinner that night and were surprised when one of them literally went and grabbed a chicken wandering around the yard, gave it a few swift blows with a stick and started to prepare to de-feather and clean it on the lawn!    One of guides came around the corner with one of those crazy hook knives and upon seeing the bewildered look on our faces, decided to finish the process behind the building.  It was pretty funny.

To commemorate our final evening on the trek, we planned to have dahl baht one last time, but that we would eat it with Powan and Sabin the traditional Nepali way, with our hands.  The guys were really excited to see us get down and dirty as they do every meal of their lives.  They actually never sat with us at dinner because they said the Nepali way of eating was too ‘rough’ for tourists.  Ha!  Kim chickened out, but we had dinner in the small dinning hall with about 25 people taking pictures of Powan and Sabin and me stuffing our faces with fists full of the local favorite.  It was so much fun!   With a few tips from Powan, I pretty much got it down. 

Me and Powan eating dahl baht the Nepali way

Day 12- Dhampus to Pokhara

Our last day was a short 1.5 hour, super steep, downhill hike into Phedi where we would catch a ride back into Pokhara, the town we left from to start the trek.   This part was a little bittersweet for the both of us.  I was so happy that I finished the trek, but at the same time we were sad that it was over.  Especially Kim.  Our entire trip had been planned around this trek, getting there at the right time for weather and all.  It was one of the things Kim had looked forward to the most.  But again,  we were so proud that we had done such an amazing thing and seen some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.  A place that not too many people get to experience.    This was definitely one of the most physically and mentally challenging things I had ever done and I will never forget it.  I’m so glad Kim exposed me to such a wonderful part of the world.  Thanks Kim:)

Me, Sabin, Kim, and Powan


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Upon hearing we were headed to Laos, a lot of our friends and family from home asked, ‘Laos?  Why are you going to Laos?  What’s in Laos?’  It seems to be a country that not many Americans know much about.

Wedged between Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, Laos is a small country that during the Vietnam war, the USA dropped over two million tons of bombs over Laos, destroying villages and displacing thousands of citizens.  In addition, a large percentage of the bombs failed to detonate, leaving behind contamination from the unexploded bombs , which has injured or killed thousands of Laotians since the end of the war.

However, despite its grim past and current poverty, Laos is a beautiful country with friendly people…we looked forward to exploring and seeing what it had to offer. 

Crossing the Mekong in a longboat, we arrived at the Thailand/Laos border, had our passports stamped, and began the long and bumpy bus ride to Luang Prabang (there are very few paved roads in this country…it took us nine hours to go around 60 miles).   Along the way, we made friends with Megan, a fellow passenger from Denmark that was travelling for a few months around India and southeast Asia; she would turn out to be our travel buddy through the majority of our time in the country.  We arrived in Luang Prabang around 10:30 p.m., checked into the first reasonably priced guesthouse we could find, and passed out.

Thailand/Laos Border...very official

Our first couple of days we spent making new friends and exploring the town…Luang Prabang is so quaint and charming, it almost makes you want to throw up.   Situated between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, its cobble stone streets are lined with cafes, shops, Buddhist temples, and buildings inspired by French architecture.   There is an extremely slow pace of life here…all the restaurants and bars close up around 11 p.m. and the only late-night action after that is the local bowling alley (it only has 5 lanes…ha!), which of course we had to check out.

At the bowling alley. I bowled a 13.

One day, our group took a trip to the nearby Kouang Si Falls to walk around and do a little swimming.   It had rained the night before, so the pools were a little murky, but still incredibly beautiful.   Kelly and I jumped off one of the falls and Megan did the rope swing.   Fun times.


A couple of days later, we booked a one-day trek that involved a hike through the jungle, lunch in a mountain village, and kayaking on the Mekong.   After a month of laying around on beaches, the trek was a bit difficult, not to mention crazy…we were climbing over huge boulders, fallen trees, and walking through leech-infested forest.  We made it to the mountain village where we had lunch at a local’s home.   The poverty in these villages is somewhat shocking…there may be a house or two that have brick or concrete walls, but most are made of bamboo, thatch roofs and some plywood.   You see homes and villages like this all over Laos and it made Kelly and I feel very fortunate to have such cush lives back home.

This is someone's house

Our hosts were very friendly and the food was delicious.   After lunch, we began our kayaking down the Mekong, which made the hard trek worth it…the paddle down was absolutely stunning.

On the Mekong

Cute kid trying to get us to pay him $1 to set a bird free, which of course just flies right back to its cage. Lil' hussler!

On our way back to town, we stopped at Ban Xang Hai, a small village where Lao Lao, the local whiskey is made. A lot of the whiskeys are poured into glass bottles with snakes, scorpions, centipedes…even a fricken bear paw…and are supposed to give you crazy dreams. We tried a few flavors sans insect/animal parts and it was pretty brutal.   It tastes a lot like rocket fuel.

Lao Whiskey

The rest of our evenings in Luang Prabang were spent wandering the nightly street market, cocktails at Hive Bar (along with a Lao village fashion show!), and dinner by the Mekong.

Fashion Show at Hive Bar

One morning I dragged myself out of bed to watch the procession of monks, a tradition where monks collect their alms for the day.  Every morning at 6 a.m. the monks of Luang Prabang walk along the main street, which is lined with local men and women seated on mats.   They place sweet cakes and sticky rice in the monks’ urns…this offering is the monks’ only food for the day.  It is a beautiful custom to witness, despite having to watch a few tourists get right up in the monks’ faces to snap photos, which I found a little disrespectful.

After 5 relaxing days here, Kelly, Megan and I headed to the party town of Vang Vieng to do some tubing and watch an obscene amount of ‘Friends’.

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Kelly and I were fortunate  to meet up with Doug again and have him as our tour guide for the rest of our time in the city.  He grew up in Hong Kong and was in town visiting his parents for a few weeks…we love having a local to show us around!  He and his friend Joseph (randomly, a former Austinite) showed us a great time.  Some of our favorite adventures include:

 -Dim Sum at Luk Yu Teahouse, one of the oldest dim sum restaurants in Hong Kong. 

-A Spanish wine tasting with Doug’s parents at a swanky hotel. His dad accidentally knocked a whole tray of wine glasses onto the floor, which was awesome.


-One of the most amazing sushi meals of our lives (Kelly will fill you in later), followed by karaoke, a popular activity here in Hong Kong. We had a private karaoke room and spent the night getting sloshed and butchering Neil Diamond, Madonna, and Michael Jackson tunes. Disappointingly, there were no Rolling Stones songs available, but it was still a kick-ass time. See if this little ditty doesn’t get stuck in your head after about 2 seconds:


-The Horse Races! Horse racing is a huge spectator sport in Hong Kong, and Doug’s folks scored us some free tickets to the Wednesday night races in Happy Valley. Kelly and I gambled and lost, Doug’s horse actually placed and he won a whopping $45.

The Race Track

The Track

Crossing the Finish Line

-A day trip to Lantau Island where we sort of got to see the Big Buddha statue through a bunch of clouds and stupidly attempted a hike to the summit of Lantau Peak in crap weather. This was not the best idea since the ascent is pretty steep and the rock stairs were wet and slippery…coming down was going to be a problem. It was so cloudy that you couldn’t see anything anyway, so we turned around before reaching the summit and tried not to slip and break our skulls open.


The Big Buddah

-Strolling around Tai O, a small fishing village on Lantau, to check out the dried fish market and catch whiffs of fermenting shrimp paste. Yum!


Tai O

Dried Fish Anyone?

-A day trip to Macau Island, a former Portuguese colony known for it’s Vegas-style casinos. We didn’t do any gambling, but did cheer on Doug as he weighed in for the highest bungy jump in the world (233 meters) off of the Macau tower. It looked terrifying…even Kelly wouldn’t consider doing the jump. Doug took it like a man though and earned some bragging rights and a ‘free’ t-shirt.


Doug v.s. The Macau Tower

View of Macau from the tower

-Going back to the insane seafood restaurant for an incredible dinner and pounding beer bowls with the owner. Pretty convenient that he and Joseph happen to be drinking buddies outside of work.

 -A night ferry ride at the harbor and drinks with city views at the Sheraton Sky Lounge.

Hong Kong at Night

Some things that Kelly and I did without Doug, but wished he could have been there:

-Drinking bloody mary’s and watching the last few minutes of the Superbowl at an Irish bar with 100 or so other Americans.

-A shopping trip to the Wan Chai computer center so that I could purchase a new point and shoot camera. My expensive waterproof, sand-proof, shockproof camera quit working after the Whitsunday sail in OZ. I think some sand got stuck in the lens. ‘Sand-proof’ MY ASS, Olympus!

-Watching Avatar at the IMAX theatre. Totally blah story line, but pretty cool to look at (sort of like The Matrix, Andy).

-A trip up to The Peak for coffee and some cloudy, yet incredible views of Hong Kong.

View of Central from The Peak

Us and Doug on our last night in HK

Now about the FOOD…

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Ok, so I know this Christmas post is almost a month late, but what can I say?Living the life of a backpacker is extremely hectic with so many sights to see and people to meet…

One of the things I was looking most forward to while visiting New Zealand was the chance to reconnect with my old flatmates who I lived with here back in 2001.  When Becky and her husband Gavin offered to host us for the holidays while we were in Christchurch, Kelly and I happily accepted.  Our first night after getting settled and meeting Caitlen, their adorable daughter, Gavin cooked us up a fantastic meal while we reminisced about old times.  We felt at home already!

Christmas Eve we were invited to dinner with Gavin’s family who live literally just across the road.  Not surprisingly, families in New Zealand celebrate the holidays just as we do in the States…with a crapload of food. Ham, turkey and dressing, New Zealand crayfish, salads galore, chocolate mousse and some amazing raspberry sorbet were only some of the goodies we consumed that night.  

I got to play Santa while everyone opened gifts and we also engaged in one of my favorite Christmas traditions here in New Zealand…the Christmas cracker.  A Christmas cracker is a cardboard tube where someone grabs one end and you pull the other…it pops really loudly when it comes apart and there is a paper crown and other goodies inside.  I just like the paper crown because it reminds me of the old school  Burger King crowns we’d wear around as kids. What ever happened to those anyway?

Pullin' the Christmas Cracker


Paper Crowns!

One of the many dinner courses

Christmas morning, Becky’s family came over and after some glasses of bubbly and a yummy breakfast, we opened more gifts. Kelly and I got a CD of New Zealand bands and a huge tube of New Zealand candy bars from Becky and Gavin, both which would come in super handy on our drive around the south island. 

Caitlen with a Christmas cookie...what a cutie!

 That afternoon, we drove out to Becky’s parents house for Christmas dinner. The seasons are reversed here, so it was a bit strange to be sitting outside on blankets in their garden with eighty degree weather, sipping champagne and eating hors d’oeuvres. I’ll take this over a white Christmas any day! We did a white elephant gift exchange, which is always fun and I ended up with a pair of nail clippers and Kelly scored a cute New Zealand ornament. I don’t think that anyone was too impressed with the sweet Chris Christoperson CD that I brought as my gift.

Summer Christmas


Kelly and Lucy showing off their gifts

Me with my nail clippers and Becky with her classy New Zealand license plate frame

We had another incredible meal of roast lamb and other delicious sides and salads before indulging ourselves with a New Zealand specialty – chocolate pavlova. Pavlova is a meringue topped with cream and berries and is very light and sugary and is absolutely wonderful! We had a few more drinks in the garden before calling it a night.

Christmas dinner spread

Even though Kelly and I were sad to be away from our own families over Christmas, Becky, Gavin, Caitlin and their families couldn’t have been better people to spend our holiday with. They made us feel completely at home and we were so thankful that they let us crash their family gatherings. Christmas with ‘The Brinch’s’ will be one that we will never forget!

Becky and Gavin Brinch, our amazing holiday hosts

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After our short stint in Colonia, we hopped on a bus and headed over to the small beach town of Punta del Diablo. We originally were going to make a stop in Punta del Este; however, we heard it was a lot more touristy and a bit of a party spot. Our friend Marianne that we met in Mendoza had gone to Punta del Diablo a month or so before and suggested that the slow-paced and less visited beach would be more our style.  And boy was she right…

Punta Del Diablo

We took her recommendation on the hostel as well, El Diablo Tranquilo. The hostel itself was decent, but quite crowded. It was also run by all Americans from Chicago, who were all very nice, but obviously lacking in culture.  The hostel also ran a bar on the beach that had mediocre food but a great drink selection.  And the bar did draw a nice local crowd as well.

During the low season, the town only has about 300 inhabitants.  But they do get up to 20,000 visitors at a time from all over Uruguay and other countries.  We spent our days lounging around on the beautiful, almost deserted beach (save for a handful of surfers), strolling down the unpaved, sandy roads, consuming our fair share of alcohol, and hanging with our new friends at the hostel.  There are a ton of little cabanas lining the beach and had we had known, we would have rented one of them for the week and definitely suggest that option to anyone who travels here. You can get a pretty decent price if you have 3 people or more.

The main road

We also went horseback riding with a local named Fabian and two girls from Sweden. It was such a great day! Kim and I hadn’t been on a horse in over 17 years so we were a little nervous. Especially because my few experiences riding ended in me either falling off or my horse laying down in the mud with me still on it. Yeah. And of course, Fabian gave me the slightly unruly horse, Imilio, but was great once you show him you’re in control. Kim’s horse Borracha (“drunk girl” in Spanish), was awesome. They named her that because she weaves back and forth down the road and always stops to munch a bit on the way. It was hilarious. Fabian led us through the local national park and we stopped for some cookies and wine before doing some galloping down the beach. It really was a nice combo:)


Wine break

I also made friends with one of the only Uruguayan guys that worked at the hostel, Matias. He offered to make us an authentic Uruguayan meal at his place our last night in town. It reminded us a lot of our mother’s stew she used to make us. It consisted of steak, chorizo (a type of sausage), bacon, pasta, potatoes, carrots, yams, and onion in tomato sauce. It was so delicious and really nice to have some good comfort food for a change.

There wasn’t much to do in Punta del Diablo, but that was exactly what we were looking for. We could have actually stayed here another week or so. Kim and I really enjoyed it here. However, it was time to head back toward Buenos Aires so we could get over to Chile. We stayed one night in Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo and had lunch at an old port that is now filled with restaurants and small shops, and then went to a local market to have a look. It was crazy big and sold everything from produce to live chickens, ducks, and turkeys. One night was definitely sufficient for Montevideo. The next day we hopped our ferry and cruised back in to Argentina.

We didn’t have much time in Uruguay, but were definitely glad we included it in the trip. Here are some random thoughts and/or highlights about Uruguay.

-It’s much more expensive than Argentina. Boo.

-Chivito’s are awesome. It’s a type of sandwich that is served everywhere consisting of really thin steak, a fried egg, lettuce, tomato, and mayo. Lots of mayo. MMMM.

-The stray dogs are so cute. The same ones hang around the people they like and escort you all over town. A walk to the store, a stroll on the beach, heading home from the bar? “Heck yeah I’ll come!”

-The men are very attractive in this country. Yep.

-The people are extremely laid back and friendly.

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Kelly and I made some good friends in Monteverde, but were really looking forward to some quality beach time.  After a couple of relatively tame bus rides, we reached Manuel Antonio, a small beach town on the Pacific Coast and home to Manuel Antonio National Park, the most visited park in Costa Rica.

All of our new friends in Monteverde
All of our new friends in Monteverde

By the way, if you ever come to Costa Rica, don’t even think about staying more than 2 hours in Puntarenas.  It’s a dump.
We checked into our hostel, Vista Serena, which is run by two American guys, Alex and Conrad.  It’s set at the top of a ridge and has a huge deck with hammocks with a fantastic view of the ocean.  We spent all of our evenings sitting on the deck drinking Imperial and watching the sun sink into the horizon.  There is nothing to describe the sunsets here…all of them are extremely different and absolutely beautiful.

View from the deck at Vista Serena Hostel
View from the deck at Vista Serena Hostel

We planned to hit the beach on our first day, but we woke up to thunderstorms and pouring rain.  Kelly and I knew we were coming during the ‘wet’ season, but had only seen rain our first day in San Jose…we were wondering when the crappy weather was going to hit.  It ended up clearing up by the afternoon, so we walked down to the beach, checked out all of the shops and had a beer before heading back to Vista Serena to watch the sunset.
For dinner, we’ve been eating at a kick-ass restaraunt called Angel’s right down the street from the hostel.  We had an incredible dinner of fresh mahi-mahi, rice, au-grautin potatoes and salad for about $7 per person.  A plate of food like this in the U.S. would cost at least $20.

Mahi-Mahi dinner.  It rocked our world.
Mahi-Mahi dinner. It rocked our world.

On our second day, Kelly and I checked out Manual Antonio National Park, which was really beautiful.  It has several walking trails, a handful of picturesque beaches, and a ton of wildlife.  We layed on the beach for a couple of hours and saw a sloth, a family of white-faced monkeys, birds, and had a couple of iguanas hang out with us on the beach.  We grabbed a quick snack and a beer before heading home and made it back just in time before the rain started.  Alex whipped up a fantastic dinner for everyone at the hostel (fresh fish, grilled veggies, and plantains).  Kelly and I nursed our sunburns and called it an early night.

One of the beaches in the National Park
One of the beaches in the National Park
This is where we spent our Saturday.  It's a rough life.
This is where we spent our Saturday. It’s a rough life.
Happy Sisters!
Happy Sisters!
An Iguana that hung out with us for a bit
An Iguana that hung out with us for a bit
A sloth!  These things are so cool.  They move all slow and trippy-like.
A sloth! These things are so cool. They move like they are in slow motion.
A monkey!  We want one.
A monkey! We want one.

Today is our last full day in Manuel Antonio and the weather is perfect.  We plan to take it easy, lounge on the beach for a couple of hours, do some laundry, and get ready to head further south to Dominical in the morning. We really enjoyed our time here and recommend Vista Serena to any of you that ever plan to head this way.  Just be ready to drink and smoke every night, because that’s pretty much the way of life here. 

We hope all of our friends had a great time in the rain at Austin City Limits festival.  Kelly and I were bummed to have missed it this year, but while you were rockin’ out to King’s of Leon and Pearl Jam, this is what we spent our evenings enjoying: (Mary, these are for you)

Vista Serena - Night 3 (It was cloudy, but still pretty)

Vista Serena - Night 3 (It was cloudy, but still pretty)

Sunset at Vista Serena - Night 2
Sunset at Vista Serena – Night 2
Vista Serena - Night 1
Vista Serena – Night 1
Our last night's sunset

Our last night's sunset

Goodbye Vista Serena!

Goodbye Vista Serena!

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